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Are Opioid Overdose Death Rates Actually Much Worse Than We Think?

Are Opioid Overdose Death Rates Actually Much Worse Than We Think?

Author: Justin Mckibben

It hasn’t even been one week since I wrote about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting opioid overdoses increased by 30% in only one year, and already a new story from The Washington Post suggests that these numbers are actually being highly undercounted! So in reality, the increase could be skewed by the fact that the real rates of overdose deaths are tragically misrepresented.

This new study reveals that the government has actually been undercounting opioid overdose deaths by anywhere between 20% and 35%!

So how is this happening? How much worse is the overdose outbreak?

A Closer Look at Coroner Reports

The reason the study says this underreporting is happening is due to how the current numbers are actually determined. In order to estimate national trends in opioid overdose and opioid-related death, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amasses data from over 3,000 coroner’s offices across the US.

However, the issue is that coroners function independently, so their available resources vary from case to case. The same goes for their reporting practices.

Christopher Ruhm, a professor at the University of Virginia, took a closer look at tracking trends and found that a lot of coroners do not specify the drug when documenting a fatal overdose. Ruhma states that from 1999-2015, of all fatal overdoses 23.1% did not have a drug specified on the death certificate.

The CDC cannot control local coroners, so it is the states and counties responsibility to improve their overdose reporting practices. If we want a more accurate reading of how opioids are harming a community, there has to be efficient documentation.

Unfortunately, the political incentives are not very supportive of accurate reporting. Officials may be concerned that by spending money on better overdose recording, they will have paid for the chance to look like their opioid problem is actually getting worse. The incentive just isn’t there from a political stance. However, that isn’t a good enough reason to botch the records. Communities still deserve to have a comprehensive idea of the issues they are facing.

Tracking Overdose Death Trends

The inference of coroners not including the drug in the report is that there are a lot more overdoses that do not get included in the official figures released at the federal level. There could be thousands of more deaths from opioids that go unaccounted for. To take a shot at tracking trends, Ruhm studied the records of coroners who did record specific drugs for overdose deaths. Based on this tracking, he was able to attribute a “corrected count” of opioid overdoses. In his report, Ruhm states:

“Corrected rates were obtained by using information from death certificate reports where at least one drug category was specified to impute involvement for cases where none was specified.”

There are many elements to how Ruhm came up with her corrections, and I encourage everyone to read the full analysis, which is published by the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA). The report makes some pretty intense claims about what overdose deaths opioids should account for. For example in 1999 the CDC figures show:

Yet, Ruhm’s corrected count shows 1999 saw:

  • 10,232 overall opioid deaths
  • 3,421 synthetic opioid deaths

In 2015, the CDC figures say:

  • 33,091 overall opioid deaths
  • 19,884 synthetic opioid deaths

But Ruhms count pushes that up to:

  • 39,999 overall opioid deaths
  • 23,857 synthetic opioid deaths

Finally, when we look at the 2016 CDC figure, it said 42,249 opioid overdose deaths nationwide. But the corrected count figure puts 2016 at 49,562 opioid overdose deaths nationwide

What we can take away from Ruhm’s research is simply that the severity of the opioid crisis is being underestimated. From 1999-2015, Ruhm’s corrected counts for overdose deaths were 21% to 35% higher for all opioids. With corrected counts involving heroin and synthetic opioids were 20% to 30% higher.

So when we look at these stats, even if we leave some room for calculation errors, it is still a troubling thought. Since 2009, the leading cause of injury-related death in America has been drug overdoses. For years now, opioids have been public enemy number one concerning drug policy. Everything from prescription painkillers to synthetics being shipped halfway across the world has contributed to this crisis. If all we know about the true devastation of this epidemic is merely our best guess that still doesn’t take it all in, now is truly the time to urge officials and community leaders to take significant steps toward real, lifesaving solutions.

One of the most important resources that we need to take advantage of is providing safe and effective treatment to those who are struggling. Palm Partners Recovery Center has offered innovative and holistic treatment options for over two decades. If you or someone you love is struggling, please call toll-free now. We want to help.

CALL NOW 1-800-951-6135

Opioid Crisis Continues to Get Worse: Overdoses Increase Nationwide

Opioid Crisis Continues to Get Worse: Overdoses Increase NationwideAuthor: Justin Mckibben

These days it is pretty much impossible to In case you missed it, the latest news concerning opioid overdoses in America is not good. Just this week a report was released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that only reminds us of just how horrific the opioid epidemic is. In most of the country, this crisis continues to get worse.

While we still don’t have a complete picture of the death toll in 2017 concerning opioids, the most up-to-date data shows that overdoses have spiked nationwide. Examining reports from hospital emergency rooms, the report compares the overall increase in opioid overdoses from the third quarter of 2016 up until the third quarter of 2017.

According to this data, opioid overdoses to increase by 30% in only a year.

Rising Overdose Rates by Region

In every age group, with both men and women, opioid overdoses are increasing, according to CDC Director Anne Schuchat. The Midwest has been the hardest hit region in that 12 month period. According to the CDC report:

  • 7% increase in opioid overdoses in the Midwest
  • 3% increase in the West
  • 3% increase in the Northeast
  • 2% increase in the Southwest
  • 14% increase in the Southeast

All this may not come as much of a surprise for many Midwesterners. When you look at the last few years, the opioid crisis has not been kind to these communities. Of the counties with the highest overdose death rates per capita over the last few years, we consistently find some of the top spots going to states like West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Needless to say, these devastating figures aren’t exclusive to the Midwest. A few more examples include:

  • 109% increase of opioid overdose in Wisconsin
  • 105% increase in Delaware
  • 6% increase in Pennsylvania
  • 34% increase in Maine

Luckily, not all areas are experiencing record highs. Some states are actually fortunate enough to see a slight decrease in overdoses, including:

  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island

Even in Kentucky, which has been a Midwestern state hit pretty hard over the years, the CDC analysis saw a 15% drop.

The CDC report does not specify as to why certain regions are experiencing overdoses differently, but one factor experts say has most likely played a key role is the availability of more potent opioids. The synthetic opioid fentanyl has been making its way onto the streets more and more over the last couple years, and supply of drugs like fentanyl has increased much faster in certain areas, which probably has a lot to do with the difference in overdose rates per region.

Analyzing Opioid Crisis

The recent report was meant to take a closer look at the opioid crisis by analyzing overdose reports in emergency rooms instead of opioid deaths like the CDC had previously focused on. CDC Director Anne Schuchat said these numbers lag behind the emergency room reports, and that the agency wanted “more timely information” to work with.

The data utilized for this analysis came from:

  • Approximately 90 million emergency room visits
  • Reports from July 2016 to September 2017
  • 52 jurisdictions in 45 states
  • 142,577 suspected opioid overdoses

That survey found an increase of 29.7% in opioid overdoses. The research also analyzed:

  • 45 million emergency department visits
  • Reports from July 2016 to September 2017
  • 16 States
  • 119,198 suspected opioid overdoses

This analysis shows a 34.5% increase during the same period, but those increases vary drastically from state to state.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of opinions on how to look at this mountain of information and see a way through it. But many experts are convinced that so far we have been failing those who are suffering the most.  Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, states:

“It is concerning that 20 years into this epidemic, it is still getting worse. The number of Americans experiencing opioid overdoses is still increasing.”

Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and chief executive officer of the Addiction Policy Forum, is one of many voices who are advocating for a more compassionate and supportive system. Those like Nickel believe that the key element to changing the opioid crisis is better integration of addiction treatment into a more comprehensive and effective healthcare system. Some, including Nickel, believe even emergency room staff should be better prepared to help get follow-up addiction treatment for people with substance use disorder.

Addiction isn’t going away anytime soon, and perhaps one of the most tragic parts of the problem is that so many people never get the help they need. Too many are afraid to ask for help, and plenty more still don’t know how to get help. Providing safe and effective substance use disorder treatment isn’t just useful, but vital to our future. So taking advantage of these programs and supporting expanded access to addiction treatment should be at the forefront of the conversation if we hope to break this trend and save lives. If you or someone you love is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free now. You are not alone.

CALL NOW 1-800-951-6135

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